“I planted. Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” -1 Corinthians 3:6
This article is painful for me to write, because I am no fan of Alabama football!
Nevertheless, last month’s college football championship game between the Crimson Tide and the Georgia Bulldogs was one of the most riveting games I’ve ever watched. And it ended with an Alabama victory primarily because of a controversial decision by Coach Nick Saban to sideline his starting quarterback for the second half.
A scoreless first half resulted in Saban benching Jalen Hurts and replacing him with true freshman Tua Tagovailoa. That turned out to be a genius call as Tagovailoa led his team to a 26-23 win over Georgia, passing for 166 yards and three touchdowns, while Jalen Hurts watched from the sidelines.
But Hurts didn’t just watch, nor did he sulk at being relieved of his command. Throughout the second half Hurts was Tagovailoa’s biggest fan. Each time the cameras were aimed at Hurts, they captured him enthusiastically cheering his teammate. The next few days I thought about what I had witnessed. How might things have been different had Hurts responded negatively to what happened to him? Would Tagovailoa have gotten the encouragement and motivation he needed to lead the team to win the national championship? It is impossible to predict infallibly if things would have turned out differently, but watching these two celebrate together after the game reminded me of something very important.
What happens on the bench matters.
We pastors aren’t always the best examples of what it means to be teammates. Stay in ministry long enough, and you will experience some really bad times—decline, conflict, financial pressures, and possibly termination—at precisely the same moment your colleagues are enjoying seasons of growth and blessing. I remember leading a man to the Lord over twenty years ago. It was an amazing opportunity to watch the Gospel transform a life. Then, after visiting with our church for a couple of weeks and talking about baptism, he told me he had decided to unite with a Methodist Church in town because their worship style was something he was more accustomed to. That church was a good place for him and he continued to grow there in his relationship with Jesus. But it bothered me for years that I couldn’t play a deeper role in his spiritual development, and that someone else now had that privilege.
A friend of mine labored for years to revitalize a struggling church. After five years of hard spiritual labor, the congregation was finally ripe for growth, when he and his family were called away. Within six months, new pastoral leadership had tripled the size of the church. The pastor who presided over that rapid growth is now a very well-known Christian leader around the world. To this day, few if any recognize the work my friend did to set up his successor.
Sometimes, God passes over you and uses another to finish what you started.
Sometimes, God uses you to start a fire, then picks someone else to stoke it into an inferno.
It’s easy in moments like that to sulk, to give in to envy, and to look toward heaven in desperation as if to say “God, throw me the ball!” But last month, two young quarterbacks modeled well how we should respond when others get the playing time, or the credit, that we want for ourselves.
Paul himself stated that in a context where everyone is figuring out who their favorite preacher is, the preachers themselves should concentrate on one thing only: the advance of the Gospel. We should be grateful to God that the Gospel is going forward, and that people are coming to Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:12-17). When God uses the other guy, are we more regretful that He didn’t use us, or more thankful that He transformed a life? A disposition of thankfulness is fatal to envy and jealousy. It’s also better for our own spiritual health and mental well-being.
Jalen Hurts may have spent the second half on the sidelines, but he was still wearing an Alabama jersey. How many quarterbacks get the honor of playing for a team of this caliber? This young man was able to cheer from the bench because he knew that in this case, the brand was more important than the man.
In the end, our churches and ministries are important and essential, but they aren’t ultimate, because individually, they don’t constitute the “team” by themselves. The “team” is the Kingdom of God, and our first loyalty is to that Kingdom. (Matthew 6:33)
Something Hurts understood from his prior play was the pressure his true freshman teammate was now facing in the second half—a pressure he had likely never faced before. At least when you are sitting on the bench, the national spotlight isn’t on you to perform! That kind of perspective can be helpful to pastors.
I’ve been the small church, single-staff pastor (they are heroes by the way!) who presumed how much easier my ministry would be if my congregation were just larger, or if I had a bigger budget, or more staff help. Today, I pastor a large congregation with multiple staff and a vast campus. And what I’ve discovered is that your liabilities usually end up equaling your assets. My struggles as a pastor didn’t go away by serving a larger church. They just got bigger!
A few years back I sat with the pastor of a mega-church in the mid-Atlantic whose budget exceeded $3 million per year. I was praying with him because they were experiencing enormous financial strain. Two hours later I was having lunch with a young church planter experiencing the same problem with a budget of less than $100,000, and he was shocked to learn that his mega-church brother had the same struggles. Thin margins are thin margins, no matter how large your bank account is. And at the end of the day, most all of us—regardless of our size or appearance of success—have the same struggles.
In past times when I have been tempted to envy, it has always been helpful to remind myself of where those feelings come from. They emerge from a sense of entitlement. They result from presupposing that I somehow “earned” a growing ministry, another convert, a higher salary, or a better overall situation. In moments like that, I have forgotten that I deserve nothing, and that being a pastor is simply a gracious gift from a loving God. I get to be part of a team of faithful pastors around the world who together are making a combined difference that cannot be measured on this side of eternity!
I’m on a team that from the beginning has been declared the overwhelming victor. I’m on the team that transforms the lives of people in this world and the next one. And I’m on the team that will one day welcome our Lord back to the world He created to establish a Kingdom over which I will rule with Him. That realization produces immeasurable joy, no matter what position we play!
What happens on the bench matters. How we respond when God inevitably benches us for a while matters. Last month, two young football players helped us all see how everyone contributes to victory, even from the bench. So wear your team jersey with thankfulness, loyalty, perspective, and joy until He returns!